Not that I'm a religious man, but there have been occasions over the last couple of years when I've been tempted to gaze heavenward and plead, “Why me, Lord, why me?! What awful transgression has caused me to suffer so?”
Ever since my wife and I signed the deal to build a house in a gated South Florida community, the sad truth is that I've had to repeatedly stifle the powerful instinct to cry out in anguish and, I hesitate to confess, in anger.
Let's quickly summarize, then: Not a God-fearing man, not a violent man. And yet a big-time Florida home builder quickly brought out of me both a fervor and a fury to which I was plainly unaccustomed.
What possibly could have provoked this most unbecoming reaction? Why the drama? Why, for that matter, this magazine story?
Answer: An exhausting, insufferably dehumanizing buying experience that absolutely did not need to occur. That is the unfortunate element in this little drama.
WCI's slogan, featured throughout its lush ad campaign, says, “The experience is everything.” The company is right: The experience is everything. For me and many of my neighbors in this development, the home buying experience was miserable because WCI's team blithely discounted our concerns. It was as if we were nothing but a nuisance as they all went about building our homes.
I began my dealings with WCI with the assumption that the Florida-based company was smart. In 2004, it was named the “Country's Best Builder” by the NAHB. It has put up thousands of high-end homes in the Southeast and elsewhere. But when it found itself in possession of a fabulous parcel in Palm Beach Gardens at exactly the moment Florida's real estate market was hitting a white-hot streak, it appears to have lost its bearings. WCI planned 963 houses for its Evergrene development, selling many on a lottery basis. But then, amid the hubris of the record-setting building boom, the company thumbed its nose at many of those customers.
ONCE UPON A TIME
Let's go back to the day in November 2004 when my wife, April, and I pulled up to the sales office of Evergrene, WCI's beautiful new community a dozen miles north of West Palm Beach. Everything seemed just right. After a week of visiting one master planned community after another—each architecturally overwrought in the popular South Florida idiom—here at last was a place that stood apart. Its homes, gathered around a 38-acre lake, were mostly Mediterranean in style and modestly scaled. The Atlantic Ocean was but minutes away. Moreover, the promotional material noted that Evergrene was a pilot project, one of the first-ever master communities in the United States built to Audubon International's tough environmental standards. We liked that a lot.
My wife and I scanned a portfolio of pictures and settled on a Spanish Colonial—the Sterling model—which was said to be about 3,200 square feet. (I say “about” because no one ever seemed to know for sure. This may have been an omen; during our entire ordeal, WCI never offered definitive answers to … well, anything.)
There were no Sterlings available to tour. Interest in Evergrene was so intense that WCI was unable to set aside any models, our sales agent said. But we could walk through some of the houses that were under construction.
With new-home prices rising weekly at the time, we hurriedly picked a lot, wrote a check, and flew back to New York, where I was working as a writer. It wasn't a leisurely buy, to be sure, but it constituted a wise deal, we said to ourselves. We'd gotten in at preconstruction prices (under $700,000 for our place—before some $150,000 in upgrades). And our new house, set on a preserve, would be ready in just a year's time.
Copies of our contract arrived a few weeks later. There was, however, no thank-you note. Not that one was necessary but, you know, it would have been nice. We asked ourselves, Where was the love? How about a little appreciation for our deposit check?
We'd gladly have settled for even a returned phone call.